Thursday, December 27, 2007

Believing our own eyes - Oregonian Opinion

Originally published in the Oregonian, Dec. 01, 2007

Believing our own eyes - Oregonian Opinion

I am fascinated by people who embrace the many advances of scientific discovery, but are quick to discount any studies which go against their preconceptions and beliefs.

Some of this is understandable. Since the dawn of history, humans have been served well by their senses to navigate their surroundings. We're predisposed to use anecdotal experiences as compelling evidence -- our "common sense."

However, we've long passed the age where simple unaided observation yields much new information of scientific value. Scientists now deal with subatomic and cosmic scale phenomena only observable by lab equipment. They model our climate on supercomputers, peer into our DNA, and discover planets billions of miles away. By combing through massive amounts of collected data, they discover patterns and correlations invisible to the casual observer.

To some people, such abstract findings are not intuitive and are therefore less compelling than what they already "know" to be true.

Others are uncomfortable with the theological implications of discovery and openly rebel against the modern world - witness the radical Islamic agenda to revert to some fabled pre-industrial age. Roughly half of Americans trust the pre-scientific pronouncements of long-dead biblical authors, believing that "God created the world along with all creatures big and small in just six days.*" Can you imagine people in 4007 A.D. relying on our current religious thinkers' theories about the moral causes of AIDS, droughts and tsunamis?

Regardless of the source of this abiding mistrust of science and its methods, there are real consequences.

Patients are ignoring evolutionary concepts - stopping their antibiotics once they "feel better" -- and deadly superbugs like MRSA flourish. Action on climate change is delayed by deniers who still distrust the overwhelming scientific consensus. Vaccinations, possibly the greatest advance in modern medicine, are now being rejected by misguided people -- putting themselves and others at risk for avoidable horrific diseases.

I honestly don't know what the answer is, particularly where the willfully ignorant are concerned. They tend to be immune to evidence and reason, at least until they need the latest "miracle" drug or their beachfront property gets submerged by rising oceans.

* According to a Time Magazine 2005 Survey

No comments: